A responsible business agenda

We need to look at how we do what we do in the charity sector. Pursuing our cause alone, by whatever means, just isn’t good enough, says Sarah Mitchell, director of Heart of the City and vice-chair of the Nationwide Foundation.

Last week Forster Communications and nfpSynergy released a report bemoaning the lack of ‘corporate responsibility’ in the UK’s largest charities. Focusing on the larger charities they made the case that few are running operations in the most responsible way and that the charity leaders ought to adopt more of a corporate social responsibility (CSR) approach.

I wasn’t convinced by their research data (I don’t think that whether a charity employs someone with ‘CSR’ in their title is a reasonable indicator of responsible practice) but in one respect they do have a point: we need to look at how we do what we do in the charity sector. Pursuing our cause alone, by whatever means, just isn’t good enough (which links to what Precious Sithole wrote a few months ago).

There are three areas I think we all need to consider as charity leaders to address this. Firstly, we do need to do better to adopt the practices of what is now called responsible business or social purpose. Crucially this is not the same as traditional CSR, which most of us will think of as charity partnerships and corporate fundraising.

As the report points out, progressive companies now look at their impact on the environment and how they support staff wellbeing and diversity as increasingly important parts of their responsible business agenda. The public and our potential donors expect charities to operate to a higher ethical code and where we don’t do so we risk eroding trust in our work.

So we just can’t afford to not to take this on: frankly, we can’t afford to not be at least as good as the private sector, and we shouldn’t be ashamed about looking at what they are doing and learning from them.

Secondly, there are many charity leaders already demonstrating great practice in this area. I’m thinking of the CEO of a small charity I met recently who was determined to recruit a return-to-worker into a new vacancy and was prepared to be flexible to make this work, another introduced a cycle-to-work scheme, but there are myriad other great examples of charities running with a strong sense of their place within wider society. We need to ditch the old hair-shirt approach of expecting staff to put up with rubbish terms and conditions just because they care passionately about a cause. Our employees deserve better.

Those of us who are operating responsibly also need to shout about it. Businesses are not shy about publicising their responsibility and sustainability because they see it as a huge competitive advantage. We too should make sure our staff, beneficiaries and other stakeholders know that we are living wage employers, that we offer flexible working, that we have a diverse senior management team and trustee board, etc, etc.

And finally, a point that we simply can’t ignore is that some of this costs money and time. Paying the living wage, offering apprenticeships, hiring and training good managers and even paying for decent maternity or paternity leave all cost money. And too many funders or donors still baulk at paying for project management, core costs or competitive salaries.

As sector leaders we need to push back to funders and donors on this. We need to have a strong collective voice reminding our funders that we don’t run our services on the cheap and that our beneficiaries expect and deserve to be served by an organisation that operates to the highest ethical standards, that looks after its workforce and the wider environment.

Photo by Qingbao Meng on Unsplash

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